CLEVELAND — On Dec. 2, the Orlando Magic played one of their worst games of the season in a 98-80 loss to the Washington Wizards. The Magic's point total still ranks as their lowest offensive output all season.
On Tuesday night, the Magic played another awful game, falling to the Golden State Warriors 94-81.
It's no coincidence that Nik Vucevic sprained his left ankle in both of those defeats. Vucevic, the team's starting center, has emerged as one of the Magic's most indispensable players, a steadying force on both ends of the floor.
Orlando soon might be reminded of how valuable Vucevic has become. Although the team's official injury report lists him as "day-to-day" because of his new ankle injury, it seems highly unlikely that he'll play when the Magic face the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night.
"We've been without Nik once before, and I don't think it went that well," swingman Arron Afflalo said.
No, it didn't.
Vucevic missed four complete games after he accidentally stepped on a courtside cameraman in Washington on Dec. 2.
The Magic lost all four of those matchups.
Their offense often struggled. It managed to produce just 83 points against the New York Knicks, only 88 points versus the Houston Rockets and a paltry 85 points against the Memphis Grizzlies. The results could've been much worse, but the Knicks were missing center Tyson Chandler and the Grizzlies were missing center Marc Gasol because of injuries.
In their four full games without Vucevic, the Magic averaged just 95.7 points per 100 possessions — down from their season average of 99.1 points per 100 possessions.
Vucevic's absence produced a domino effect for the rest of the team.
Without his scoring ability in the low post and without his offensive rebounding, opponents can allocate more of their defense toward stopping the Magic's perimeter shooting, especially Afflalo.
"Nik is a player at this stage who we can throw the ball to, and he commands a little bit of attention himself," Afflalo said. "So, we can't just abandon the post when Nik's not in the game. Hopefully, we find other ways, whether it's through some guard play or the bigs that we have available, to continue to get the ball down low."
The Magic also suffered on the defensive end of the floor in the four full games without Vucevic. The team gave up 108.4 points per 100 possessions — a dramatic increase over its season average of 102.4 points per 100 possessions.
Vucevic is averaging 13.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
"Obviously, he's a guy that helps us out a lot on the floor," small forward Tobias Harris said. "But, as a team, if he goes down, we have to pick each other up and still play ball. That's basketball. It's the NBA. If someone might get hurt, keep playing. That's it.
"He's one of the best centers in the NBA. But he wasn't there, so we can't stop and sit and make an excuse."
If there's a bright spot for the Magic for their upcoming game against the Cavs, it's that Cleveland recently suspended its best center, Andrew Bynum, for conduct detrimental to the team. But Anderson Varejao remains, and he gives Cleveland a tenacious rebounder.
Players such as Jason Maxiell, Kyle O'Quinn, Andrew Nicholson and perhaps Solomon Jones will receive time if Vucevic misses games.
"Vooch is a great rebounder, but we have to make it up with the bodies that we have," Maxiell said.
If they don't, this trip to Cleveland and the games that will follow could be painful ones.
Even more painful than a sprained ankle.
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